Remember when the biggest decision in picking out a carton of eggs was whether to buy small, medium, large or jumbo?
Times have changed. These days, you can’t purchase a dozen without asking yourself at least as many questions.
Should I choose cage-free or free-range?
Is it worth shelling out more money for eggs from vegetarian-fed hens?
What’s the deal with omega-3 eggs, anyway?
It’s enough to ruffle even the calmest shopper’s feathers.
But, relax. We’ve pecked through the terms. We’ve separated fact from hype. Read our glossary and, next time you hit the refrigerated aisle, you’ll know egg-sactly what you’re buying.
Cage-free: If this description summons up visions of hens roaming the farm with abandon, snap out of it. True, cage-free hens have better living conditions than the vast majority of their egg-laying peers, who spend their existence confined in a cage no bigger than a sheet of paper. Uncaged hens, on the other hand, can spread their wings and nest. But most never go outside and typically live in severely crowded conditions. Beak trimming — partial removal of the beak to prevent pecking and even cannibalism that occurs in these high-stress environments — is also permitted.
Free-range: Another term with misleadingly idyllic connotations, “free range” applies to uncaged chickens with outside access. It does not define their diets. Nor does it mandate the amount of time they spend outdoors or the quality of their outdoor environment.
Certified organic: To earn this label, hens must be antibiotic-free and must subsist on a diet of organic feed produced without conventional pesticides or fertilizers. They’re uncaged, and they must have outdoor access. But such access may be limited to small wood or concrete porches attached to the henhouses.
Omega 3 eggs: Eggs labeled “omega-3” come from hens fed a diet containing flaxseed. But an omega-3 fortified egg gives you only a fraction of the amount experts recommend for brain and heart health. You’d be better off eating a piece of salmon.
Vegetarian-fed: This means that chickens are not fed animal byproducts in their feed. One problem: Chickens are omnivores. Forcing them into vegetarianism deprives them of an essential protein-based amino acid that keeps them healthy. What’s more, their desire for nutrients missing from their diet causes them to peck at each other. Farmers circumvent these problems by feeding their hens a synthetic version of the protein — but only in small amounts if they want to also call their eggs organic.
Pasture-raised: The least common description of the lot — and the most desirable. Pasture-raised hens roam freely outdoors. There, they can forage for their natural diet — seeds, plants, insects and worms. Their eggs are nutritionally superior to those produced in factory farms.
Although a rare sighting in commercial supermarkets, eggs from pasture-raised hens can be found at farmers markets as well as natural and specialty food stores.
Locally, these include Feel Rite, the Lexington Co-op, Farmers and Artisans and the Bidwell Farmers Market, among others.
If you commit to eating pasture-raised eggs, you can also seek out farmers who sell them at roadside stands. Search for farms near you at localharvest.org.